AATF Executive Director Tamara Dias talks to fellows during a workshop. Credit: Credit: Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress

The African American Teaching Fellows recently held their summer institute, consisting of four days of workshops and social events for former and current fellows.

The Charlottesville-based organization provides support and professional development to African American teachers from the city and Albemarle County.

The summer institute began in 2012 and caters to active fellows who are still in school, getting their teacher certification, as well as fellows who recently graduated and have started working in schools.

“[We offer] sessions that give fellows insight into skills that they’ll need in the classroom, as well as a social component where fellows get to establish relationships amongst each other that will become helpful in ensuring that they have successful experiences once they start their careers,” AATF Executive Director Tamara Wilkerson said

Fellows are selected through an application process that includes interviews and reviews of their references, personal statements and GPAs.

Though the institute emphasizes professional development for newer fellows, Wilkerson highlighted the importance of alumni fellows’ continued involvement.

“The best way to continue to recruit teachers to this area is to have fellows and prospective fellows see products of our program and people who have been successful,” Wilkerson said. “We have, currently, 16 teachers teaching Albemarle and Charlottesville. We try to keep that engagement ongoing because our alumni fellows speak to the success of the program.”

On Tuesday, the fellows headed to Johnson Elementary School to participate in workshops on student-teaching and strategies for a successful first year as a classroom teacher.

Destinie Thomas, an AATF fellow who now teaches first grade at Meriwether Lewis Elementary School, led “Navigating Student Teaching as a Fellow.” The workshop focused on creating a timeline in order to make the most of the student-teaching experience and leave a strong impression.

“These are ingredients, not a recipe. Everyone’s student-teaching experience is going to be different depending on which school you’re in, your [mentor-teacher’s] personality,” said Thomas. “The most important thing is to make a good and professional impression. Being the youngest in a school can be intimidating and scary.”

The session included four fellows who will be student-teaching or completing practicums for specialized certification in the next year. Two of them are students at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, while the others attend schools around the state but will be student-teaching in the Charlottesville area.

Throughout the session, Thomas stressed the value of taking risks and not being afraid to make mistakes during the student-teaching period.

“It’s very important to stretch yourself; there really is no way to fail,” Thomas said. “If you have this experiment you really want to try, now is the time.”

Wilkerson echoed that sentiment, telling the fellows, “If I could go back and do [my student-teaching] again, I’d literally try everything. This is a really good time to learn about not only working with kids, but also about how you function as a teacher.”

Later in the afternoon, Tristan Brown and April Johnson led “Survival 101: How to Survive Your First Year of Teaching.” Fellows and teachers at Johnson Elementary and Jack Jouett Middle School, respectively, spoke candidly about the often unexpected challenges they faced as new teachers.

Johnson recounted being surprised by the huge quantity of paperwork required on the very first day of school, something her mentor-teacher had dealt with when she student-taught. Brown felt the same way about dismissing students at the end of the day.

“For whatever reason, when you say it’s time to shut it down, it goes crazy,” said Brown. “[The students] absolutely lose it, and it’s something you don’t deal with in terms of student-teaching.”

The experienced fellows spoke on a broad variety of topics, from managing grading to finding time during the day for bathroom breaks. They also urged the newer fellows to take advantage of any available support systems, including assigned instructional coaches at the schools and other members of the AATF.

In both sessions, participants discussed dealing with perfectionism and knowing when to step away. Wilkerson noted that there will always be something to plan, revise or respond to and encouraged the fellows to make sure they take time for themselves.

“If you’re not at 100 percent as a teacher, you’re not going to be able to deliver and give the best to your students,” said Brown, reiterating Wilkerson’s advice.

The workshops also included tips on building relationships with administrators and finding ways to make a mark during student-teaching. In a relatively small community, AATF’s Director of Programs Jaime Hawkins explained, a positive reputation can travel quickly from school to school.

Earlier in the week, the fellows met with both local school system superintendents and visited several Charlottesville schools.

After an in-depth question-and-answer session during the student-teaching workshop, Hawkins expressed her view of the overall impact of the summer institute and the AATF in general.

“You’re really being set up to succeed if you take advantage of everything you’re getting and you ask questions and you show that you want to be here, that you want to be a positive member of this community,” Hawkins said. “There’s no reason why or how you won’t get a job someplace you want to be.”